Riazat willing to go all the way

Riazat Ali Shah has had a fantastic time playing for Uganda. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

What you need to know:

In the power play, we saw they were hitting our pace bowlers Miyagi (Juma). They were playing well against them so we thought let’s bring spinners, let’s slow it down for them. 

You were named captain of the Itanda Kayakers, one of the three franchises competing the arguably the best elite tournament in Uganda, the Waterfalls Twenty20 Cup. How important is a tournament of this nature?

It’s the first time we are playing a tournament like this. It’s a very good opportunity for local players especially the U19 and they will get some good knowledge from overseas players. In my team, we have two overseas players and our team is balanced with the seniors and juniors. Baguma is a good emerging player and we have good spin attack as well as fast bowling.

Now let’s recap the Africa Twenty20 Cup win back in September, congratulations once again to you. How did the tournament go?

It was a good tournament for the whole team after the World Challenge League B in Jersey. There, we just didn’t qualify (for the next stage of the World Cup qualification) because of the run rate. After that tournament, we were a bit disappointed. The way we played in South Africa, we were motivated for the next tournament.

At the time, Uganda had just missed out on advancing to the final stage of the 2023 ODI World Cup Qualifiers in Jersey. What was going through the minds of the players after even a decent performance in the final games in the UK?

All the team was disappointed because we didn’t make it because of the net run rate. We were a bit demotivated but the way we went towards the South Africa tournament, it was really amazing for the team. They were motivated, they wanted to win, the hunger was still there to win the games.

During the T20 Africa show in South Africa, you scored 222 runs in all matches that Uganda played. You did not get a proper batting chance until against Kenya. Personally, did the tournament meet your expectations?

My role in the team is to be the finisher. The first game against Botswana, I finished the game. It’s my job, job tick (he smiles). And the second game against Mozambique, I got a chance to score some good runs but I got out early, I wasn’t happy about that game. And the third game against Ghana, I finished it. That’s also a tick. Then the semi-final against Kenya, I almost finished the game so it was okay for me. And the final, as you all know that I was there until the end. So for the whole tournament, it was more successful with both the ball and the bat as well. So I am happy with my performance all the tournament as I achieve the goal for my role in the team.

Just to take you back in the final. You weren’t used for the bowling. Was this deliberate to just prepare you for the moment to bat second?

In the power play, we saw they were hitting our pace bowlers Miyagi (Juma). They were playing well against them so we thought let’s bring spinners, let’s slow it down for them. I didn’t bowl because they were playing pace much better so we used Brian Masaba and Muhumuza to slow it down.

You stood out as the best batsman. Do you think this is the best tournament you have ever played for Uganda?

I have some good innings for Uganda, I have won some tournaments for Uganda. I think this is so far the best tournament for me because I finished the game. I was there until the last ball or the last run, like three games. I think it’s one of the best so far for me because we improve every day. We want to improve in every tournament and I want to win games for my team.

You had a 147-run partnership with Deus Muhumuza which is the sixth-highest third wicket partnership in T20 cricket history. What were you discussing with Deus considering this is quite rare for Uganda to bat that way?

Our aim in every game is to stay there, to utilize our skill because we have the skills, we are talented. If we go till the end, we can score so many runs. Our discussion with me and Muhumuza was ‘let’s push the game to the end. Let’s build a partnership first and let’s take more singles and utilize the loose balls.’ And it worked out in that game and we managed to score so many runs in that second wicket partnership. It was really amazing, we were running between the wickets.

Still talking that final, there were three overs left and you must have been disappointed with the way you had picked just five runs from 17th over. Did you think it was still possible with Uganda requiring 49 runs with three overs left?

When we were there, it was 24 balls left and we needed 56 runs. I was aiming for the small boundary but the bowler bowled the 16th over, it was really amazing. He just gave us seven runs and I was on pressure. But I felt we still had a chance and I believed in myself. I talked to myself: ‘You’re skilful. You can hit three or even five sixes in this over, just watch the ball and hit.’ And then 17th over, we needed 49 runs from 18 balls. When I hit the first ball, then I was: ‘Okay, this is the over. I can utilize this over.’ Then in that over, we went on to score 24 runs and then we needed 25 runs in the next 12 balls. And in T20, you just need one good over.

In terms of batting, when I look at Team Uganda, you’re normally brought in to bat at number four in T20s. Do you fancy yourself as a T20 player more than a 50 Over player? 

Yeah, I love playing T20 because I just play my shots, express myself. I play with freedom. If you talk about One-Day cricket, my batting order (number) is a bit down in recent times. I have always been at number six or seven but now going towards the next tournament, I will bat up and take more responsibility in One-Day cricket.  

Let’s talk about your journey to Uganda. How did you come to this part of the world? And do you still find food from your home country?

I played my Under-19 cricket in Pakistan. After Under-19, I came here to play for Aziz Damani (club), my club and currently I am still playing for Aziz Damani for the last five years. So I came here to play club cricket then I joined the national team and it was a bit hard for me to come here. It was totally different, different food, different cultures, everything was different from my home country. And then I was young at that time. The first couple of months were hard but when I adjusted, people and everything were so friendly. They welcomed me properly and that helped me to adjust in this environment. When I joined the national team, they were so friendly. I felt like: ‘Okay, this is my place.’ I didn’t feel like I am from outside or anything. Talking about the local food, I eat posho and matooke, I enjoy that food because back home, we have the same food, we don’t use spices or anything. It’s like home, they don’t use spices or much oil.

I’ve noticed you now know a few words in Luganda, you have made so many friends across cricket. But just to take you back at the time you in 2017, who are some of the people who helped you settle in at the start?

First, the guy who showed me Lugogo (Oval) was Ghulam Hunzai, the captain of Aziz Damani and then I joined Aziz Damani and the national team. Brian (Masaba) and Muhumuza (Deus) helped me a lot in that, they showed me everything like the boda bodas and more guys. As I said, they were so friendly. They wanted to share everything about Kampala. 

Tell me about your relationship with Dinesh Nakrani, Ronak Patel and Bilal Hassun, who is your best friend?

I spend a good time with Dinesh Nakrani because he is a good all-rounder and I am also an all-rounder. We share a couple of good things about cricket. And he is also my roommate. Ronak has experience in this game and he just shares his cricketing knowledge. Bilal is a good bowling coach, whenever we need anything with bowling, we go to him.

Okay. Of the rest of the players born and bred in Uganda, who is your best friend?

There are so many. If I talk with Brian (Masaba), I have spent almost five years playing with him, the same for Deus Muhumuza, Henry Ssenyondo, and Achelam (Fred), Kenny (Waiswa). Whenever I need help, I go to these guys. Brian and Deus showed me and told me everything about Kampala. They also told me about the bad things and told me not to do them (as he smiles). They guided me properly and I am now gelling with everyone. I can go to anyone, I have those kinds of relationships with everyone.  

What do you have to say about coach Laurence Mahatlane and the current set-up of the whole team?

When I was new in the team, coach Steve (Tikolo) helped a lot with the skills especially batting. Then after Covid-19, coach Mahatlane was there and he gave me more confidence. He believed in me and gave me more responsibility in the team, which polished my talent and everything.

You’ve talked about going up the order in the different codes of the game. Would you now give up on the bowling to take on the batting duties?

I call myself an all-rounder. If I have to bat, I have to bat. If I have to bowl, I will have to bowl. I do both, even if I bat in the top order. Like in one-day cricket, let’s say seven or overs, then T20 I have to bowl my four overs. Whenever the team needs me, I have bowl, I have to go there, I have to show them I am available and deliver every day. It doesn’t matter which batting order I go, my role in the team is all-rounder. I have to deliver with the ball and with the bat in any game.     

If you weren’t playing cricket, obviously you wouldn’t be in Uganda. So if you weren’t playing cricket, what would you be doing Pakistan?

If I was not playing cricket, I would have gone and helped my dad in his business. When I wasn’t playing cricket at club and professional, I used to go and help my dad in the business. That was plan B, to go and help my dad in his business of pharmacy in north Pakistan. He is a whole sale distributor in the country.

Many people across the world were delighted with your performance. You’ve been selected for an Africa select T20 team, what are you looking forward to in the future?

This was the first tournament and it was telecast for people from all over the world, watching these games. It gives us more opportunities all over the world. The selected Africa XI will give us an opportunity to play against the Asia team, the Europe team, and that’s a very good step towards our careers and towards the lot of young talent coming through from Africa. It will boost our confidence, it will iron our skills. We will go and learn a lot of things from players in Asia and Europe.

You come from Pakistan, a country that has produced some star players like Mohammed Rizwan. Do you have some friends in that current team?

I have a couple of friends, I played with a couple of people in that current team. I have so many friends who play the PSL (Pakistan Super League) because they played with me the U19 stage. And I talk to them. They watched highlights of the match against Tanzania and they texted me and especially one of my good friends from Zimbabwe Sikandar Raza. He watched all our game and he was texting me, congratulating me and he follows our Ugandan team. He has so many friends in the Ugandan team.

Do you exactly know what you did for Uganda to win that T20 Africa Cup?

Yeah (he laughs), I don’t know. I just won the game for Uganda. I don’t know the people feeling, meeting me and congratulating me. I am just feeling it. I made our people happy and that’s making me happy now.  

After South Africa, are people now recognizing you more?

On returning, it was different. People were congratulating me, people were telling me ‘You are the guy who won us the game.’ at the gym and outside. In the gym, everyone watched our final. When I went there, five or six random people came and congratulated. That’s amazing. Now people are following this game, that’s what we want, people to come and watch us, to come and support us. That’s what we want from Ugandan people.

We are informed that when the team chooses to take a rest, you instead choose to go and face more balls in the nets. When there is no gym on schedule, you go in for the gym. What motivates you and when do you rest?

When I sleep, that’s rest for me (he laughs). You have to do something extra if you want to be good. It depends on your goal, what you want to be next six months, next one year. So you have to do extra to be there and that motivates me because I want to improve every day. Every tournament I want to improve in my skill and in my physical, especially, I work on my strength and conditioning as I want to hit sixes and you need some strength.

As we wind up, what do you like most about Uganda?

The people. The people are so nice, the food and especially, the weather is so nice. You just have to wear one shirt all year.

You also came to Uganda to do school. Are you doing school currently?

Ha ha no, I think I am too busy with cricket. I was planning and I think I am still planning, I just need some time away from cricket to focus on school most likely a Bachelor’s degree in business.